The Art of the Murmur

The art of revision.

At first, it was indiscernible. A soft roll of breath, like a collective sigh that would let itself go around me. An invisible, low groan by an invisible flock of pigeons. By the third, fourth and fifteenth time, I figured out what this was: the odd sound that people are compelled to do after poetry is read.

It goes something like this: the poet steps up to the mic, explains what s/he will be reading and then recites the said piece. Immediately after the final line, the crowd murmurs their approval in a low voice. Not quite a “hmmm” or a “mmm” but a combination of both, like a primeval noise before sophisticated languages were developed and used. A “HmmmMmmm” that manages to scream out “Yes, I love this!” or “Bravo! Bravo!” without raising a single decibel.

Maybe I should confess now that I’m not an overt fan of poetry. I do appreciate the art but the whole concept escapes me. It’s like Broadway musicals: why sing what you’re trying to say (complete with cheesy chorus) and just speak it instead? Why write lines of sonnet when you can type it all out in prose? Of course, poetry is more complicated than that and I’ve learned my lesson this past week. While I don’t understand poetry more than ever, I do understand why those inclined to write it do so. This means it always takes me at least 5 minutes, 15 re-reads and 4 billion deep thoughts to figure out what a poem means, even if it’s not using any metaphors, similes or rhymes. So how do these people murmur their approval so fast?

I can see how a final line can cut through sharply, but what’s that phrase worth if you don’t fully comprehend everything that occurs before it? Am I just really slow and stupid that everyone around me can grasp the total meaning of a poem once that last line is uttered? Am I the only one who slightly zones out when a meandering voice booms over the speakers? Why can’t I sit there with them and “HmmmMmmm” my way home?

Instead, I humbly request what theaters do for operas. There needs to be a screen above or below the stage to display the subtitles of the spoken performance–except in this case, the deeper meanings and connections that make up the poem. Throw in some pictures, too. Think of it like an interactive Cliff’s Notes for slow people like me.

Until then, I’ll be sitting with my arms resolutely crossed and my mouth shut tight, not a sound escaping from my dim brain.

  1. I’ve felt similarly before, but in my experience a big part of listening to poetry is letting it hit me on multiple levels. Usually my first listen is all about the immediate sensory stimulation that comes with the imagery, which for me is far more accessible spoken than on paper. The other layers of understanding, as you say – “the deeper meanings and conections that make up the poem,” gradually sink in over the minutes and hours after hearing the poem. (Provided I remember the lines.)

    Those deeper meanings and connections are usually the first thing I connect to when reading the poem. Sometimes I’m not even able to access the other parts, the gut-level reactions to the emotional and sensory stimulation components, if I only read the poem as opposed to hearing it read.

    I’m going to Umami tonight. Be jealous.


    1. So does this mean you do your “HmmmMmmm” hours later when you’re alone?


      1. If it can be helped, I never make the “HmmmMmmm” sound…


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